The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was an important political and moral document, but as a declaration it had no legal binding force for the states when it was adopted in 1948. That is why the UN Human Rights Commission and the state representatives continued to negotiate and to develop legally binding human rights treaties. In 1966 the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights were adopted. The two legally binding Covenants, together with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, forms the so-called International Bill of Human Rights. A series of international human rights treaties and other adopted instruments have expanded the body of international human rights law since then.
International Human Rights Conventions
International human rights law lays down obligations which the states are bound to respect. By becoming parties to the legally binding international treaties (often called covenants or conventions), states assume obligations and duties to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights that are written down as articles in the documents.
- The obligation to respect means that states must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of human rights
- The obligation to protect requires states to protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses
- The obligation to fulfil means that states must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights
There are nine core international human rights conventions. Some of the treaties are supplemented by optional protocols dealing with specific concerns. The core conventions are:
- International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), 1965
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), 1966
- International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICECSR), 1966
- Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination of Women (CEDAW), 1979
- Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), 1984
- Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC), 1989
- International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrants and their Families (ICMW), 1990
- International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance (CPED), 2006
- Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), 2006
The states’ responsibilities
The UN and other international organisations are working constantly to ensure that the states are implementing the agreed-upon human rights for their citizens. One important tool is to get the states to undertake to legally bind themselves to the human rights treaties.
Through ratification of such treaties, governments undertake to put into place domestic measures and legislation compatible with their treaty obligations and duties. Most important is the need to ensure that the national laws harmonise with the obligations in the conventions. Through information and education, state officials at all levels must learn to respect and implement human rights. Institutions like human rights ombudsmen’s offices can be established with a special duty to analyse and report on human rights challenges in the society in question. And children should learn about human rights in the school system.
Another important obligation for the governments when they ratify the conventions, is to regularly (often every fifth year) report to the treaty bodies on how it has implemented human rights. Each of the conventions has in fact established a committee of independent experts (called treaty bodies) to monitor the implementation of the treaty provisions by its states’ parties. The committees analyse the reports and respond to the state with positive comments, criticism and recommendations. These reports can be found on the UN webpage.
The reason why states are not obliged to immediately adopt the human rights conventions when they become UN members, is related to the fact that it takes time to change attitudes and the states are powerful and strong actors in an international system that lacks a central government, court or police authority that has full control. The idea is that it is better to have even the “worst” states inside rather than outside the system. Inside they will face constant pressure from the other states to improve their human rights record.
Today more than 85 % of the UN member states have ratified more than four of the core human rights conventions. All states have ratified at least one. This shows that the international human rights regime today has universal support.
The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a unique process that was introduced in 2006, which involves a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States. The UPR is a State-driven process, under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, which provides the opportunity for each State to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfil their human rights obligations.
International protection mechanisms
Where domestic legal proceedings fail to address human rights abuses, mechanisms and procedures for individual complaints or communications are available at the regional and international levels to help ensure that international human rights standards are respected, implemented and enforced at the local level.
In addition to the global UN human rights regime, regional human rights systems have developed after the Second World War in various parts of the world. Europe, the Americas, Africa and the Arab world have developed their own treaties and systems.
In addition to the juridical mechanisms that the convention system represents, the UN (and other international organisations) can use political pressure to influence states to respect human rights. Resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly, the Security Council and the Human Rights Council are examples of such measures. Other measures can be to give specific assistance (competence building and technical assistance) to the states. The UN Security Council can also pass decisions on peacekeeping operations and humanitarian interventions.
Non-governmental organisations, the media and other stakeholders
"The Civil Society" is a term that is often used when talking about democracy and human rights. It encompasses the many stakeholders in a society that are outside the governmental power structures. Some of the most important civil society actors are the non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Many of them are established by individuals who aim to protect and promote human rights. There are thousands of national and international human rights organisations all over the world today, and numerous work to improve the situation for vulnerable groups such as refugees, children, persons with special needs, sexual minorities, elderly and others. Many of the NGOs have in-depth competence in their field and are supported by individuals, for example through membership. In democratic countries, the NGOs are generally taken seriously by the authorities. In many countries, the organisations get financial support from the government. It is however important that the economic ties are not getting too tight, so the NGOs retains their independence. In countries where human rights violations occur, authorities may feel threatened by the independent NGOs which possibly are critical of their work and actions. In several countries activists are harassed, persecuted and killed. In such situations, it is important that other NGOs and civil society actors from abroad show solidarity and assist in different ways.
Free and independent media is among the most valuable institutions in democratic societies and important actors in promoting human rights. It is only through TV, radio, newspapers and the internet that people become aware of human rights violations. Because journalists and media workers, when reporting on human rights violations, may question and criticise those responsible, they are vulnerable and may be subject to reprisals from the authorities.
Human rights are important both when it comes to claiming our own rights and protecting the rights of others. They are not given to us once and for all, but must be protected and fought for every day.
Project manager and expert for Human Rights Education at Human Rights Academy, Oslo.
Director of Human Rights Academy, Oslo. Long-standing facilitator and expert for Human Rights Education.